A CONTRACT operating leisure centres across Sandwell has been axed by the local authority, as questions are raised on how jobs and the future of leisure in the borough will be secured after the Commonwealth Games.

Councillors discussed the future of business plans between Sandwell Leisure Trust and Sandwell Council at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday (February 9).

Sandwell Leisure Trust and Sandwell Council had entered a 30-year-contract - due to end in 2034. It is currently in its 18th year.

Held behind closed doors – without access by local press or members of the public – the Labour-led authority spoke at lengths about the future of the three-year rolling contract with Sandwell Leisure Trust, before mutually agreeing that both parties must “seek an alternative arrangement” to continue running leisure centres.

It comes as an external audit report released by Grant Thorntons last year highlighted the council “has not yet agreed” business plans for 2022 onwards.

Significantly, the council had assumed Sandwell Leisure Trust would be the “assumed operator” of the forthcoming Sandwell Aquatics Centre, which is being constructed as a venue for the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

The decision to terminate the contract has raised questions about the possibility of Sandwell Council taking control of running all leisure centres, including the new aquatics centre, in the borough. It is also unclear whether a tendering process will take place.

They also highlighted the council wanted to”significantly reduce the management fee for the contract” with the Trust, and their “reliance on council funding”.

The decision also came after a fifth set of strikes took place at Portway Lifestyle Centre and Tipton Leisure Centre last month (January 28) between UNISON and bosses at Sandwell Leisure Trust over a continuing dispute over “fire and rehire” tactics used by their employer.

But the trust admitted they were navigating “the worst crisis to hit the leisure industry in our lifetime” due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Lynda Bateman, chair of the board of trustees for Sandwell Leisure, said: “Last year was an extremely difficult year for businesses, including Sandwell Leisure Trust.

“The impact on the leisure sector has been significant, but we were pleased to re-open all Sandwell facilities and return all our frontline staff back to work.

“Sandwell Leisure Trust and Sandwell Council have been working together to determine the best way forward in these challenging times. The council’s aspiration to move towards a zero subsidy to run its portfolio of facilities simply could not be met or jointly agreed through the business planning negotiations.”

Councillor Danny Millard, (Labour, Blackheath), and cabinet member for tourism and culture, said: “This move will secure the long-term future of the facilities and our services.

“We’ve been very clear that we need to protect these vital services for residents and the fantastic staff that work in our leisure centres. The council would like to thank all of the staff for their brilliant work in ensuring the safe and successful running of our much-loved facilities.

“We know that this may cause some concern to our colleagues but please rest assured we will do everything we possibly can to ensure a smooth transition for staff. These are difficult times for all of us and this is not a position we expected to be in.

“However, we will now look forward and very quickly, over the coming weeks, make decisions on the immediate transition phase and the long-term delivery arrangement for our facilities. We are working very closely with the [Sandwell Leisure Trust] management team to ensure we keep you updated in a timely and consistent way.

“We would also like to thank Sandwell Leisure Trust, the management team and board, for all the effort that has been made over the last 18 years to develop and evolve leisure in Sandwell.

“It is unfortunate that this partnership is coming to end but we are grateful for where you have taken us and it is now time to look forward to ensure services continue to thrive.”

All but one leisure centres are operated by Sandwell Leisure Trust, a registered charity and not for profit organisation since 2004.

But an external audit report released by Grant Thorntons last year said the council outsourced their leisure centres to Sandwell Leisure Trust “due to underperformance”.

Louise Dalton, regional organiser, UNISON West Midlands, said: “UNISON has been in dispute at Sandwell Leisure Trust for over 12 months, because they fired and rehired staff to remove them from the national pay, terms and conditions negotiating body.

“On Thursday February 24 UNISON will be undertaking our sixth one day strike.  Now Sandwell council has made the decision for the Trust to stop running the leisure centres we call upon them to fix our dispute too. Otherwise, the prospect of industrial action happening during the Commonwealth Games comes closer.”